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When it comes to great customer success leaders, Todd Ilberg tops the list.

Todd Illberg joined Blueshift, a San Francisco-based startup that helps brands deliver timely and relevant connected experiences across all customer interactions, as its VP of customer success and solutions last December; the company is currently valued up to $500 million by Crunchbase. And before that move, he spearheaded CS at Stensul, Conductor and Oracle. Simply put: Todd knows this industry like the back of his hand – and he knows what it takes to be successful. 

In a recent conversation with UpdateAI’s Josh Schachter on LinkedIn, Todd explained CSMs need to “wear that badge of courage” and be willing to have difficult conversations with their customers when the time arises. Great CS is about being there when everything isn’t coming up roses – but still finding a way to achieve your goals. 

For some key CS takeaways from Todd and Josh’s conversation, keep reading below:

The Customer Eats First

There’s “no secret sauce” when it comes to CS excellence, Todd told Josh. The key is to not overthink it – because the answer is right there in the name itself: customer

Todd said his north star has always been “the customer eats first.” It’s a mantra that dovetails nicely with a phrase legendary basketball coach Pat Riley has often used: “keep the main thing the main thing.” In other words, don’t lose sight of your top priority. When outlining your work objectives, it should always revolve around how it connects to – and impacts – the customer.

Here’s Todd explaining it a bit more in detail: “When you think about prioritization around product roadmaps and around different things that we may want to make investments [in], we always [use] the lens of ‘customers eat first’ to make sure that we’re taking care of the customers that are taking care of us and paying our bills.”

From there, Todd said you can make decisions on investments, product growth, and long-term company objectives.

If Todd’s motto sounds a bit familiar, you might be a fan of writer and University of Pennsylvania Professor Adam Grant, who coined the phrase “leaders eat last.” Grant has said the two rules of leadership are: 1) put your mission above your ego and 2) if you don’t care about your people, they won’t care about your mission. 

Similarly with CS, don’t put the cart before the horse; if the customer isn’t taken care of, the rest of your plans – your mission – won’t matter. 

And one tip to help keep your customers first: take notes, Todd said. Track what your customer says and track your “wins.” That will help you not only stay on top of your customers’ needs but also give success stories to point to later. 

“If everything was perfect all the time and everything worked exactly the way it was going to work, CSMs would be like, ‘Hey, what do I engage with?’ But when we have a little bit of adversity it allows us to earn our ‘hero’ status,” Todd said. 

Nothing Is Free 

You probably heard it before from your high school economics teacher, and it still applies to customer success today: “nothing is free.” 

That can often be a difficult axiom for customers to digest because “free” – or the illusion of something being free – has become ubiquitous. Every time you buy clothes or furniture online you’re told you’re being treated to “free shipping and handling” – which, of course, comes after you’ve spent a few hundred dollars. But when it comes to customer success – especially at a startup – freebies can’t be handed out. 

“We don’t do anything for free,” Todd explained, “because free has no value.” 

He then went more into detail – the money quote: 

“We really adopted the thought process of ‘We’ll do anything.’ But if we’re going to give you something, it’s complimentary, because complimentary delivers value. And it means that it’s not always going to be… [we’re always] thinking about strategies and how do we deliver what the customer is asking for, but also how do we get something that we want.” 

And it’s not “always about the dollar,” Todd explained. It can be a trade – maybe it’s terms that have been discounted or maybe it’s a case study. There are plenty of tangibles startups need to grow a business, he said, so it’s imperative that if you’re delivering something for the customer, you’re getting something in return.

 

Blueshift’s 3 Pillars of Success 

Todd gave Josh some insight on how he usually likes to conduct job interviews at Blueshift. 

He said he tries to take it in a different direction than most interviews – instead of asking the prospective employee a series of questions, Todd likes to open it up and allow the applicant to ask him questions about his business. 

First and foremost, what he’s looking for is someone who is “authentic and genuine.” Those are crucial traits, Todd said, because it means someone is “open to being vulnerable and getting feedback” that helps that improve. If you can demonstrate that in your interview, you’re halfway home when it comes to CS. 

Todd then outlined his 3 pillars of customer success: 

1. Industry Expertise

This means understanding your sector backwards and forwards from a macro level and, from a micro level, knowing how you platform provides a solution to common issues  

2. Account Management Oversight

This goes beyond managing a customer’s account; you need to “immerse yourself” in their business, Todd said, and be “the CEO of the customer.” You need to truly understand what they’re doing because that’ll allow you to be proactive. Whether you’re at a soccer game or taking a shower, “it doesn’t turn off,” Todd said. You’ve got to be able to think outside the box and find great ideas for your customer. 

3. Commercial Awareness

This is where you create great deals for customers when it comes to expansion and renewals. And the foundation of a great deal is that it’s a win for both sides – the customer and your business. Finding that sweet spot is often easier said than done, but it’s essential. 

If a CSM can wed their innate friendly personality with those three pillars, they’ve set themselves up well to succeed. 

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